Injunction puts hold on GSP project fees
The Valley Groundwater Coalition was granted a Preliminary Injunction on December 6, stopping the County of Madera from imposing or collecting its “GSP (Groundwater Sustainability Plan) Project Fees,” which were enacted by the Madera County Board of Supervisors in June, 2022 (Resolution Numbers 2022-086 and 2022-087) on Tuesday.
The County imposed the fees on owners of farm properties located in the Madera and Delta Mendota sub-basins. Attorneys for the Valley Groundwater Coalition argued to the Madera County Superior Court that the “fees” were in fact taxes enacted in violation of the California Constitution.
The Court found that the Valley Groundwater Coalition had established a reasonable probability of prevailing on its case against the County and that its members (farmers who are subject to the GSP Project Fees) would be irreparably harmed by the County’s actions in imposing and collecting the fees.
Had the injunction not been granted, the first installment of the fees would have been due on December 12, with substantial penalties and interest charges added if not paid on time. The amount of the County’s “GSP Project Fees” exceeds $20 million per tax year for fives years (more than $100 million total) and were assessed against fewer than 950 farm units in the Madera sub-basin and 12 farm units in the Delta-Mendota sub-basin.
The County contended that the GSP Project Fees were necessary and permitted under SGMA (California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act) to fund projects, the goal of which is to address declining groundwater levels in underground aquifers.
The Valley Groundwater Coalition contended that the fees violated Proposition 218 (the Right to Vote on Taxes Act) and Proposition 26 because the County is not providing any services to these farmers currently, and all of the projects are still in the design stage and nowhere near completion.
The lynch pin of the projects is the so-called Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley. That particular project has been in the discussion phase since the 1980s. The County admitted that even if construction begins “as currently anticipated” in 2025, no water deliveries will take place from Sites until 2033, more than 11 years from now.
Counsel for the Valley Groundwater Coalition told the Court that its members recognize that declining groundwater levels is a serious problem that must be addressed; however, the County cannot solve this state-wide problem by imposing a massive new tax on a small group of farmers in Madera County while all other users of groundwater (commercial, industrial, recreational, municipal, etc.) pay nothing.The Preliminary Injunction was issued by the Honorable D. Lynn Collet, Judge of the Madera County Superior Court. No trial date has been set in the matter. The Preliminary Injunction will remain in place until the case is tried or it is modified by the Court.
The Valley Groundwater Coalition is an association which includes farmers in Madera County that are the target of the County’s GSP Project Fees. According to the Coalition’s President, Ralph Pistoresi, many members are family farmers whose properties have been in the same family for generations. Had the injunction not been granted, the GSP Project Fees could have caused a typical farmer’s annual property taxes to more than double.
The Valley Groundwater Coalition is represented by Attorneys Patrick J. Gorman and Michael C. Titus of Wild, Carter & Tipton, located in Fresno, California.